Anyone still questioning Manchester City’s desire to bring through their own youth players into the first team needs to take a look around the club’s new academy facility.
The £150 million venture, which has been bankrolled by the club's owner, Sheikh Mansour, officially opened in December after painstaking research that analysed some of the world’s very best sports development initiatives. The City Football Academy (CFA) is up there with the finest in the land.
No stone has been left unturned in what is one of the most emphatic statements of intent imaginable. There are 16.5 pitches, 12.5 of which are for academy players. There’s a computer room in which players are encouraged to analyse their own performance data. There are classrooms, a first-team hotel and an array of world-class medical and rehabilitation facilities. The scale of the ambition is breathtaking.
It’s an initiative that means City now arguably offer the best place in England for a young footballer to develop. Brian Marwood, who was key to the CFA's creation, has said the club wants to have “four to six” home-grown players in the first team, as reported by Henry Winter in the Telegraph. A trip around the facility leaves you in little doubt it will happen.
It may take some time for the academy setup to really bear fruit, but there’s a growing feeling at City that one or two of their current crop of youngsters may well find themselves in the Manuel Pellegrini’s first-team plans sooner rather than later.
James Milner rejected a new contract at the club and will sign for Liverpool, and with Frank Lampard and Dedryck Boyata also leaving this summer, City will start next season bereft of three of their home-grown players from the previous campaign.
Replacing them with ready-made stars, such as Raheem Sterling at Liverpool, would be expensive, given the premium placed on top English talent. Therefore, Pellegrini looks set to promote from within.
Jason Denayer, who spent last season on loan at Celtic and has already played at international level for Belgium, and Marcos Lopes, who will return from a year at Lille, are two who are likely to play a role.
But it’s arguably Kelechi Iheanacho, an 18-year-old Nigerian, who has the best chance of impacting Pellegrini’s plans next season.
Iheanacho is likely to be involved in City’s pre-season tour of Australia, just like he was in America 12 months ago, and if he impresses, which he has done whenever he has played in friendlies and for the club’s academy sides, he could be elevated in status.
Work-permit issues have halted his progress at City, but everything is now in place for him to be involved in Pellegrini’s plans. Pellegrini recently described him as "a very important player for us in the future," according to Simon Bajowski of the Manchester Evening News.
Pellegrini added: "It depends on the way he takes this profession, but I think he’s a good talent.”
Technically, Iheanacho appears to have everything. A forward capable of playing anywhere across front line, he can use both feet, has remarkable close control and has searing pace that can leave defenders for dead. There's very little holding him back, and the club appears to have big plans for him.
A City official told Bajowski that the club would not send him on loan next season: "Manchester City will not send him on loan. Plan A, B and C is for him to remain with the club next season."
His recent goal for the City under-21 side against Manchester United's youngsters underlined his quality and confidence. Dropping short to receive the ball between the lines, he turned one defender and beat another before steadying himself and placing the ball neatly past the onrushing goalkeeper. It was a beautiful piece of artistry, and City will be hoping he can recreate that kind of brilliance in the first team next season.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and follows the club from a Manchester base. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow him on Twitter: @RobPollard.